Manti Te'o, fake girlfriends and confirmation bias

Way back in my guilt file is a story I wanted to highlight from CNN about Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's star linebacker. The story is a detailed account of the role religion plays in his life and I found it fascinating. Te'o is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is from Hawaii. My husband was raised Mormon and is from Hawaii, so I'd been following Te'o's story. He'd been a leader in the top-ranked Notre Dame team that went on to the National Championship game. A sample from that story:

Graduating from Punahou High School in Hawaii, Te'o had his choice of the best football programs in the country. His Mormon faith was a serious factor in the decision-making process, said his former high school coach, Kale Ane.

"A lot of that weighed on him," Ane, who coached Te'o for three years, told CNN.  "The final weight was getting his message out on a broader scale.  A Mormon at a Catholic school was a good way to say, 'You can keep your faith no matter where you go.' "

Team chaplain Father Paul Doyle is interviewed:

“Manti is a very religious guy. He seeks out his Mormon congregation and attends off-campus faithfully,” Doyle said.

Te'o has been a member of the local Notre Dame Ward the Mormons' rough equivalent of a Catholic parish in Mishawaka, Indiana, for four years, according to ward Bishop Jim Carrier.  The five counties in and around South Bend, Indiana, are home to about 2,000 Latter-day Saints, Carrier said.

A common practice in the LDS Church, which has no professional clergy, is having members give testimonies during Sunday worship services.

"I asked (Te'o) to talk about what influenced him to come to Notre Dame and how he used prayer in prompting him to make that decision," Carrier said.

Carrier said Te'o spoke about leaning toward attending the University of Southern California. But as he prayed about his decision, coaches from Notre Dame called to check in. “He said he just felt an overwhelming feeling it was where he needed to go," Carrier said. "He said, 'It was an answer to prayer for me.'"

The story discusses whether Te'o plans to serve on a two-year mission and how other football players handled that.

What turned out to be the most interesting part of the story, as you may have heard today, was inserted pretty late in the report:

Te'o has been vocal about the role his faith plays in his life and how he leaned on it earlier this year after both his grandmother and girlfriend died in the span of less than two days during football season.  His girlfriend died after battling leukemia.  Te'o stayed with the team throughout the ordeal, playing one of the best games of his career the following Saturday.

Turns out that there may not have been a girlfriend, that she didn't have leukemia, and didn't die.

Notre Dame officials have said that Te'o was the victim of a hoax. (CNN updated its report immediately.)

It's a very weird story and details are still coming out. Until or unless the entire story comes out, it's hard to know where to place criticism precisely. So how has the media coverage been? I actually think the current stories out there are doing a fine job of neither ignoring nor over-emphasizing the religion angle here. But I do think there is something to think about with regard to how this story has been handled previously.

I'm throwing no stones here because while I tend to be extremely skeptical, unless I was writing a story about the death of the girlfriend or heavily focused on that, I would have trusted the ESPN and other reports that repeated Te'o's claim. So most of the media coverage of the death claim was repeating claims made by fairly reliable sources. However ...

Does this sad story not illustrate the importance of the old maxim about checking out even your mother's claims about loving you?

Slate's Josh Levin looks at this issue in his "The Fake Girlfriend Experience." He says sports writers are way too interested in hero/villain story lines:

So why didn’t Thamel and his cohorts at ESPN and elsewhere figure out they were all on a Catfish-ing exhibition? Because they fell victim to confirmation bias. Even before his great 2012 season, Te’o’s golden-as-the-dome image had been cemented. He was a humble leader, a Boy Scout, a religious fellow who put family first, a player who returned to Notre Dame for his senior season because, in the words of his father, “he was led there to do something.”

Manti Te’o was a sports hero, and his standout play this year demanded the details to flesh out that storyline. There’s a journalistic cliché: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. For sports hagiographers, it’s more like: If he makes a lot of tackles, don’t you dare check anything. Stardom demands that feature writers color in the lines with off-field greatness. And Te’o’s character, it seemed, was unimpeachable. After all, there had been all these stories about how humble and religious he was, and how he’d been led to Notre Dame to do something.

There must be sports villains to stand alongside the heroes, of course. That brings us to Pete Thamel’s other recent college football opus, and the other kind of confirmation bias. In the Oct. 22 issue of SI, Thamel and Thayer Evans wrote a cover story on Tyrann Mathieu called “Trials of the Honey Badger.” Mathieu, a 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist, was kicked off the LSU football team prior to the 2012 season, reportedly because he smoked marijuana. For the SI piece, Thamel and Evans went to Louisiana and performed the kind of dogged shoe-leather journalism that nobody bothered to do when reporting on Manti Te’o, humble Boy Scout. Their prize finding: Mathieu’s face appeared on a nightclub flyer, which might possibly constitute an NCAA violation.

I think this is true. I actually don't think this is limited to sports heroes and villains, of course. Reporters on all beats have preferences that blind them. We certainly see much harder-hitting exposes of some individuals than others. You may have noticed the media treats even presidents differently.

The best cure for this is to exercise your skeptical muscles. I hope that doesn't make me sound too cynical, but it's a reporter's job to check out all claims, whether made my presidents, linebackers, mothers or others.

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